Fred Hersch Back at the Vanguard

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SUNDAY NIGHT AT THE VANGUARD / RODGERS-HAMMERSTEIN: A Cockeyed Optimist. HERSCH: Serpentine; The Optimum Thing; Calligram; Blackwing Palomino; Valentine. McCARTNEY: For No One. WHEELER: Everybody’s Song But My Own. ROWLES: The Peacocks. MONK: We See / Fred Hersch Trio: Hersch, piano; John Hébert, bass; Eric McPherson, drums / Palmetto Records PM 2183 (live: March 27, 2016)

I laughed a bit at the press release accompanying this CD, which said that “Jazz is too often portrayed as…defined by blazing young artists. But there’s…a vanguard of players and composers who continue to refine and expand the art form in middle age and beyond, like Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Henry Threadgill, and piano maestro Fred Hersch, who is marking his 60th year with an astonishing creative surge.” I laughed not because I disagreed with it—I don’t—but in irony because I know several astonishingly creative jazz veterans whose names aren’t Shorter, Corea, Threadgill or Hersch who can’t get into prestigious rooms like the Vanguard unless they make table reservations like everyone else. Anyone out there have weeklong gigs available for Jack Walrath? The Turtle Island String Quartet? Byron Olsen? Jack Reilly?

Cincinnati native Fred Hersch left Grinnell College in Iowa to play jazz in his home town along with local pianists who already had gigs locked up there, like Steve Schmidt, Phil DeGreg and my own personal favorite of the 1980s, Ken Kresge. The difference is that Schmidt and DeGreg are still here whereas both Hersch and Kresge have moved on. Hersch’s breakthrough year was 1981, when he played with Art Farmer in 1978 and again in 1981, also playing at the Kool Jazz Festival (now, alas, renamed the Kool Festival and having nothing at all to do with jazz) in the latter year. He has since catapulted to fame, has been a faculty member at the New England Conservatory of Music on and off since 1980, and was the first solo pianist to play week-long gigs at the famed Village Vanguard in New York, where this set was recorded.

Judging by this recording, Hersch is a pianist in the tradition of one of the Vanguard’s most storied residents, Bill Evans, with touches of Lennie Tristano, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. He plays with a light touch, light swing and rich chord positions to create a warm ambience. His bassist, John Hebert, plays lightly in the background, supporting Hersch with sensitivity and good taste. Drummer McPherson is very interesting, creating cross-currents behind Hersch and Hebert and propelling the music with a predominant use of the snares and cymbals. On the opening track, for instance, once Hersch moves into the improvisation, Hebert becomes more animated whereas McPherson remains as animated as before, but the constant time-fractioning of the drums draws interest. Hersch also uses more time-fractioning here than Evans was wont to do, only returning to a steadier pulse for the ride-out.

Serpentine, one of five Hersch originals on this disc, also has a Bill Evans-ish feel to it, particularly in the modal construction of the initial theme. I found it interesting that, no matter what the pulse played by the other two, McPherson generally continues his drumming in the same vein. There is a certain classical bent to this track, not merely in the theme but in the style of the improvisation in which Hersch utilizes a wide range of classical techniques including triplets, trills, and double-time runs, all of them played in a “pure” piano style not that far removed from many classical pianists. In fact, the heavily involved and ornate development section proves to be one of the real highlights of this disc, so complex and involved is it. When Hebert begins his solo at 4:22, it is also curiously classical in feel, using a light, almost vibratoless tone and tending towards the high range of his instrument. During his solo, both Hersch and McPherson fall silent, at least for a time.When the drummer re-enters behind him, it is now in the form of very light snare and tom-tom taps. At one point in his solo, Hebert almost seems to be using a Spanish beat, following which a cymbal washfrom McPherson reintroduces the leader on piano.

The Optimum Thing, another original, is much jazzier and more upbeat. One might be tempted to say that it has an almost Monk-like feel to it, with its quirky single-note melodic structure, but I also heard it somewhat related to the work of Tristano or even Herbie Nichols. In both this and the preceding piece, Hersch eschews the use of the left hand almost entirely in terms of chording to employ a single-note style, here more jazz than classical in orientation. By the time we reach the three-minute mark, it is clear that Hersch is using both hands to play against each other to create a jazz fugue, which slowly accelerates in tempo until it fairly overwhelms the listener—at which point he cuts back on the complexity and just swings with the right hand. In this piece, McPherson is less complex in rhythm, generally employing a steadier beat or at least a more generally propulsive one.

Calligram is one of those medium-tempo swingers that has all but disappeared from jazz, with a “walking” beat played by the bass as an introduction. When Hersch enters here, he is playing a fragmented melody that sounds very much like the kind of thing Evans used to play with George Russell, except that it is more cryptic and less completely filled out. Both bassist and drummer suddenly double the time around 1:50, at which point Hersch becomes quieter at the start of his improv. Before long, it has become a three-way “trialogue” with the musicians in the trio all contributing to the evolving structure, which now becomes strongly bitonal, almost Tristano-esque. By the 4:30 mark, the cross-rhythms created by the three have become so complex that only the leader’s piano seems to be on a steady rhythm—and then, it suddenly ends.

Blackwing Palomino seems to combine the features of the previous two works, being somewhat straightforward and swinging while maintaining the feeling of “speaking” in minimal, incomplete musical sentences. The middle section, on the other hand, is straightforward swinging, not very far-out at all despite the use of some off-kilter triplets here and there. The trio’s wonderful unity of thought and feeling is evident throughout. Paul McCartney’s For No One is an unusual nod to a traditional pop tune writer, though played in a soft, Bill Evans style. Here McPherson stick to the brushes for much of the tune and Hebert’s own playing is minimal and delicate. This is Hersch’s showcase, and is followed by Kenny Wheeler’s Everybody’s Song But My Own in which the trio adopts a Latin beat and works through it in an almost minimalist fashion. The tune is reduced to its basic building blocks before reassembling them in Hersch’s own manner which eventually leads to greater rhythmic complexity.

The Peacocks is another strange piece, starting out in a strictly classical vein as a series of sprinkled notes followed by right-hand tremolos balanced by tremolos in the left hand. One can’t exactly call it Debussy-ish, however, because it bears a closer resemblance to the music of Granados or Albeniz, at least before settling down to a more conventional (albeit bitonal) melody with variants. Once again, Hebert plays lightly and McPherson is on brushes. I found this particular piece endlessly fascinating and almost sui generis; in the end, the music didn’t really sound like the work of anyone else but Fred Hersch, particularly when he adopts a definitely jazzy beat at 6:40 into the piece before returning to the more classical feel. Hersch also completely restrcutures Thelonious Monk’s We See in his own Evans-ish/classical vein, turning it into a series of countermelodies and restructurings of elements within the tune. Near the end, I had the odd feeling that Tristano, Hersch and Monk were playing all at the same time. Both Hebert and McPherson stay busy here.

As an encore to this set, Hersch plays his own piece Valentine, another soft, Evans-ish composition, and does so beautifully. This is a completely solo piece, no bass or drums, and leaves the listener with a feeling of a goodnight hug. All in all, a splendid album with many highlights.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Maag’s 1959 “Figaro” Beats Them All

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MOZART: Le Nozze di Figaro / Heinz Blankenburg, baritone (Figaro); Rita Streich, soprano (Susanna); Bianca Maria Casoni, mezzo-soprano (Cherubino); Vito Susca, bass (Dr. Bartolo); Nicola Monti, tenor (Don Basilio); Renato Cesari, baritone (Count Almaviva); Marcella Pobbe, soprano (Countess); Fernanda Cadoni, mezzo (Marcellina); Amilcare Blaffard, tenor (Don Curzio); Elvina Ramella, soprano (Barbarina); Leonardo Monreale, tenor (Gardener); Nelly Pucci, Vera Presti, sopranos (Two peasants); Chorus of Teatro San Carlo, Naples; Orchestra “Alessandro Scarlatti” di Napoli alla RAI; Peter Maag, conductor / Arts Archives 43070-2 (live: September 22, 1959, Naples)

Arturo Toscanini, after seeing a performance of Le Nozze di Figaro, reportedly said, “Is all very beautiful, but where is the sunshine?,” as a reference to Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

This performance has plenty of Italian sunshine. And moonshine. And all kinds of shine. In fact, it is without a doubt the most effervescent performance of this opera I’ve evr heard. The whole thing absolutely sizzles from start to finish, the singing and the conducting, but especially the incendiary playing of that small orchestra as led by Peter Maag. This is Mozart on steroids, a Nozze di Figaro to beat all comers. But why have we never heard of it?

Search as you will through the internet, you will not find a single review of this recording from any of the “leading” review publications. Certainly not Gramophone or BBC Music, who are still under the spell of John Eliot Gardiner, Theodor Currentzis and René Jacobs, all well-intentioned also-rans, but also neither at Classics Today, Fanfare or American Record Guide. Despite the fact that this recording was issued in April 2007, it has effectively been buried so deeply into a hole that it would probably take your local city sewer district to dig it up. It is a “non-recording,” one that no one listens to or takes seriously except for one reviewer, Christopher Howell at Music Web International. He is the only one who recognized its greatness and said so online.

And why is that? Well, because the label that issued it, Arts Archives, is about as big as your next-door-neighbor’s bootleg CDs of his nephew’s wedding. Until Naxos picked it up for distribution, it has not just flown under the radar but under the plane when it’s on the ground, and because it is an “older” recording they’re not really pushing it very hard. So it continues to languish in no-man’s-land where its brilliance sparkles in a vacuum.

Poor Nozze! Poor Peter Maag! And poor us, for not knowing this spectacular recording. If I hadn’t tripped across it on the Naxos Music Library, I’d still be in the dark like all of you. But allow me to sing its praises, and give you three or four good reasons why you need to own it.

#1: Despite its age (September 1959) it’s in stereo, and surprisingly good stereo at that. I wouldn’t have believed that the Italians, of all people, actually did such outstanding experimentation in live stereo broadcasts at this early a date; certainly, none of the Maria Callas or Anita Cerquetti broadcasts I’ve heard of the same vintage have been in stereo, and certainly nothing as spectacular as this. There is a real “spread” to the sound, following the singers as they moved about and sang, which all comes across as totally natural, and the orchestra always remains clear and sharply-etched no matter what.

#2: This may very well be Peter Maag’s finest three hours of his career. Using a small orchestra, he further refined its sound so that the winds were prominent and “buzzy” in the now-accepted “historically-informed” manner, but without burying the strings as so many HIP performances do. He was able to achieve this by having the strings play with a fast, tight vibrato but NOT with straight tone, which is ahistorical and flat-out wrong. Throughout the performance, he only resorts to more traditional, slower tempos in two instances, Susanna’s aria “Deh vieni, non tardar” and the final denouement when the Count recognizes the Countess, “Contessa, perdono.” I don’t mind it at all in the latter case—in fact, if you take that music too quickly it loses its impact and its ability to catch you by surprise and make you cry (it ALWAYS makes me cry, every time I hear it), but in the former case he really should have picked up the pace a little.

#3: Though not an “all-star cast,” this is a superb ensemble of committed artists who give their absolute best and come up shining. The only three famous names are those of Rita Streich, Marcella Pobbe and Nicola Monti, who I’m sure took the role of Don Basilio as a favor to Teatro San Carlo and conductor Maag—he was surely too big a name to do so otherwise, being more used to performing the leading bel canto roles with such singers as Callas. Pobbe had kind of an unusual voice: creamy in tone but with an Italianate vibrato and a very slight “whine,” like Ileana Cotrubas, but like Cotrubas she was an outstanding musician and interpreter. I’ve heard at least a dozen star sopranos sing “Porgi amor” with a more gorgeous tone than Pobbe, but not one who intrprets the words and touches the heart the way she does.

#4: There are absolutely no “let-down” moments in this performance. Even the secondary arias, such as the Count’s “Hai già vinta la causa” and Figaro’s “Aprite un po’ quegl’occhi,” sudden;y become highlights not only because of the lively singing but because the orchestra is constantly in there pitching, laughing and/or mocking the characters in their comic adventures in every phrase and scene. Moreover, because most of the cast are native-born Italians, the recitatives also sizzle. They move quickly and deftly, rattling off the tongues of the singers the way Rossini’s recitatives did in the famous and venerable 1929 recording of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Sunshine, indeed!

As for the singers you haven’t heard of, a few notes are in order. American baritone Heinz Blankenburg (b. 1931) apparently spent most of his career in Europe, particularly in Hamburg where he was one of the very few foreigners named “Kammersinger.” Critic Andrew Porter once described him in The New Yorker as “someone whose performances are to be collected and prized,” but his only commercial recording—until this Figaro was released—seems to have been as Masetto in Erich Leinsdorf’s Don Giovanni. In his online review, Howell pointed out that “a DVD seems to exist of a 1967 Hamburg Figaro, which may be sung in German.” Baritone Renato Cesari, our Count Almaviva, is a wonderful singer with a bright voice who sang Sharpless in Anna Moffo’s recording of Madama Butterfly. Vito Susca, though not prodigious of voice, has a fine basso buffo which he uses to great advantage in Dr. Bartolo’s “La vendetta.” Our Cherubino is Bianca Maria Casoni (b. 1932) who later went on to sing Charlotte in Werther, among other roles. She has a rich voice with an appropriately androgynous sound, perfect for the role, and sings with great sensitivity and expression.

But this is a true ensemble performance, of the sort that is common now but not then, when the “star system” determined what gold-plated voices would be singing, and that makes all the difference in the world. Everyone works as a unit towards the presentation of this comic masterpiece to the best of their individual and collective abilities, with the result that the sum is greater than the whole of the parts.

The only cut in the score is Marcellina’s aria. Howell assumes that it was cut because its technical pyrotechnics were beyond the singer used here, Fernanda Cadoni, but my own opinion is that neither Cadoni nor Maag felt that the aria was appropriate to the character. After all, Marcellina is a rather mature woman who turns out to be Figaro’s mother, and casting a ripe-sounding mezzo in the part is dramatically correct. In the famous Erich Kleiber recording, it was sung by Susanna, but it holds up the action, doesn’t contribute to the unfolding comedy, and simply doesn’t suit the character.

In short, then, this is not only a superb performance of Figaro but in my view a “desert island” choice for the opera. There are two selections in the last act where the sound seems to “phase” a little (meaning that there are moments where one channel or the other sounds less full in volume than the other), but aside from that there are no deficiencies in sound as there are no deficiencies in the performance. If you like this opera, you need to own this recording!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Remembering Leif Segerstam in the 1970s

Long before conductor-composer Leif Segerstam looked like this:

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He looked like this:

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and I know, because I saw him twice in the 1970s and can attest to that.

He was also, even then—perhaps more so, then—looked upon as a radical and, for some critics and listeners, an impossible-to-understand composer. His music seemed to be all over the place, particularly in its rhythm, which was so fluid that even the composer himself referred to it as his “free pulsative” style, but it was the lack of focus (or so it seemed to inattentive listeners) in its structure and development that turned many people off. I, on the other hand, loved it, particularly the chamber music which was what was first imported to New York record stores in the early ‘70s. My particular favorites were A Nnnnooooowww for Woodwind Quintet (1973) and the incredibly freaky String Quartet No. 6 (1974), with its final movement played “in the spirit of Gustav Mahler,” and not just symbolically: performances of this work (especially on the Bis recording) always featured a ghostly figure made of chicken wire and paper-maché who sat at a piano , silently, until near the end of the last movement when the first violinist is requested to back up on the stage and “help” the ghost of Mahler play a contrabass low A on the piano.

Oh, you don’t believe me? Here’s a photo of violinist Segerstam doing just that:

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This, then, was a musician who operated outside the mainstream. Just how far outside I didn’t realize at the time since, as I mentioned, his recordings were hard to find even at Joseph Patelson’s Music House just down the street from Carnegie Hall, which also sold some of his scores. And what scores they were! Here’s a page from that same string quartet:

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What attracted me to the music of Segerstam, and still does today, is the remarkable feeling and passion in his work. Say what you want of his music, it is not cold and indifferent as in the case of most modern works. Take A Nnnnooooowww, for instance. I think it’s rather hard to find nowadays, although Presto Classical seems to be offering the album (titled Finnish Wind Music and including works by other composers) for download. The wind instruments in this strange work cry and whimper like some wounded alien birds from Alpha Centauri. Definitely not your father’s classical wind music! And that last movement of the String Quartet No. 6 is best listened to in the dark, with the lights out, letting the slow yet weirdly glowing music to wash over you. By the time the last notes die away, you will discover that it is an experience you will never forget.

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The Segerstam Quartet circa 1973, Hannele Segerstam on the left.

Indeed, though he has continued to record his own works, the Segerstam of the modern era is known much more as a conductor of others’ music, and to me this is a shame. Of course, much of this is due to the difficulty of his music: atonal yet charged with emotion, and in many cases Segerstam not only encourages but demands spontaneous choices of his musicians. When I was younger, I thought this entailed improvisation, particularly since he played his Rituals in La with Lasse Werner who was a jazz pianist, but in most cases this involves “choosing” different development sections and/or mixing and matching his separate themes in different ways. Thus, for instance, in his String Quartet No. 7, the players are asked to choose the themes of the last movement in a different order each time they perform it. Things like this have driven both performers and critics crazy trying to make sense of his fluid, fluctuating, “free-pulsative” scores.

But who exactly is this man, other than the Brahms-like figure with the white beard who now waves his arms at orchestras like an inspired madman? Born in 1944, he studied violin, piano, composition and conducting at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. receiving his diploma in violin and conducting. In 1962 he won the Maj Lind piano competition and made his debut as a violinist that same year, continuing his studies at Juilliard in 1963, where he studied conducting with Jean Paul Morel and violin with Louis Persinger—yes, the same Louis Persinger who had taught Yehudi Menuhin! After earning his conducting diploma in 1964 and his post-graduate diploma in 1965, Segerstam returned to Finland where he led the Finnish National Opera for three years. During this time he was also a guest conductor with numerous Finnish orchestras as well as touring with the Finnish Ballet. He became a conductor at the Stockholm Royal Opera in 1968, where he was appointed principal conductor in 1970 and Music Director in 1971. He also conducted opera in Berlin and, in 1973-74, was general manager of the Finnish National Opera.

Oh, yes…in 1969 he also conducted a performance (I know not of what) with the Swedish rock band, the Mecki Mark Men. Here’s the picture to prove it:

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So Segerstam was pretty strange even early on, but it wasn’t until I read some of his comments—about his own music and comments to orchestras in rehearsal—that I realized just how strange. I guess the bottom line is that he was just as odd as his music. Here, for instance, are his comments on A Nnnnooooowww:

This music of mine speaks for itself and it speaks out of its performers, in their chain of motivations for their utterances in sound of their music-making—NNNNOOOOOWWWs when the music actually iiiiiiiiiiis. How was it, and what was it, now,?   This time     ? Please reset yourself to positive zero before you listen to my piece!

Or these notes to his String Quartet No. 7:

I felt it was an espressivo-music, mostly even semprei espressivo possible…! the roots are in the expressionism of my previous quartets (Nos. 4, 5 & 6) and later chamber music…Because of the Free-pulsativity this work always makes its own new form so it was worth to be pushed through so demandingly as the music-making felt to have to been done this time: The struggle towards the crashes after the almost “Beethovenia!” trials to find an outlet and ending of the first movement…PLEASE SHARE SOME OF THE STRAIN IN DECIDING ABOUT ENDINGS BY DECIDING YOURSELF YOUR OWN END-VERSION. Our end-version was ABBABAAB!

This isn’t exactly Igor Stravinsky, talking calmly and rationally about his scores. This is a guy who gets REALLY wrapped up in his music, and to a certain extent in others’ music. Here are some of his comments made to orchestras in rehearsals:

Could we have a relatively normal beginning?
Like an old-time Western locomotive, we can get the organity of the puffing…
The string section without the basses is a plasmatic living cluster.
A sort of indignated way of playing before the “la minore” explosion.
Was this a conspiration to read my beat?
Just play in your box until you come to the climax…so that we can hear the clappering.
The quintuplet should be freshly and rudely the same as the triplet.
Something is satelliting out of the control of the beated music.
I have words for everything that can be expressed: Coincidentimently, Emryomalic, Electrifically, Fiveishness, Flimmer, Inexclickable, Fengurish five things, I am fluxating in 8.
Please don’t play sloppy dactyls that they don’t know what it is.
You haven’t experienced it because nobody is doing it.
You don’t need to count here. You won’t get lost because at the end I will turn and look at you stoppingly!
Keep the fermata of the rest interesting.
Wait for the Puccini bit in four and make like the diva.
We will enter in the right times, so the shortening is to the left.
Native folkloric haemiolas that you should have in your Mahler blood.
There are people swallowing time.
Watch it! My left hand is looking at you!

I saw Segerstam conduct in person twice. The first was a performance of La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera on March 9, 1974, a cast which included Teresa Zylis-Gara as Mimi, Edda Moser as Musetta, Luciano Pavarotti as Rodolfo and Mario Sereni as Marcello. His tempos were on the slow side (as they still are, in others’ music, today) but his musical line achingly beautiful, with an almost unbelievable transparency of texture and a way of making the music “float.” I was so impressed by his performance that, afterwards backstage, I waited for him to get his autograph on my program. He was shocked. “You must have me confused with someone else,” he said. “I’m just the conductor!” “I know you’re the conductor,” I said. “Your performance was exquisitely beautiful.” “Oh! Thank you! In that case, I will happily sign your program!” he said. And he did.

The second time was after I had moved out to Ohio, a performance with the Cincinnati Symphony on November 10, 1978. One of the pieces on the program was his own wonderful Sketches From “Pandora,” a performance so good that it easily surpassed his studio recording of the same work. Afterwards I talked to some of the orchestra musicians, who told me that they enjoyed working with him because he knew his music but found him “a little weird.” After having learned of the strange things he says in rehearsals, I now know why.

The reader should not come to the conclusion that I am poking fun at Segerstam. On the contrary, I have the highest respect for him, and still manage to occasionally follow his career through recordings. Among my favorites are his set of the Sibelius Symphonies and Berg’s Wozzeck. As of this writing, he is scheduled to release a set of recordings juxtaposing his own symphonies (some of them, anyway…he’s written over 300!) with the four symphonies of Brahms. He remains a fine musician, no question about it, but for me, personally, there was something exciting about discovering him for the first time and being part of a “secret clubhouse,” one of a select few people who “got” Leif Segerstam. He remains one of the great musical experiences of my life.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Rich Halley’s “Outlier” Great, Creative Jazz

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RICH HALLEY 5: THE OUTLIER / HALLEY: Recipe for Improvisers; Urban Crunch; Green Needles; Du Fu’s Stew; Rising From the Plains; Reciprocity; The Nuthatches. R. HALLEY-GOLIA-VLATKOVICH-REED-C. HALLEY: Around the Fringes; Long Blue Road; The Way Through / Rich Halley, t-sax; Vinny Golia, bar-sax/bs-cl; Michael Vlatkovich, tb; Clyde Reed, bass; Carson Halley, drums / Pine Eagle 009

This, tenor saxist Rich Halley’s latest album is his 20th and the first to feature five players instead of four. The new addition is baritone saxist and bass clarinetist Vinny Golia, whose instruments add extra color to the ensemble, but this would be for naught were the compositions less arresting. Halley has not only the gift of improvisation but also the good taste to write music that is highly original and structured, reaching backwards (as so many young and not-so-young jazz musicians are doing nowadays) to the age of Mingus and George Russell.

To that mix I would also add the much lesser-known name of Rod Levitt, the trombonist-composer-leader whose four albums in the mid-1960s (one for Riverside, the other three for RCA) have become cult classics among jazz musicians, particularly jazz composers. Particularly the opening track, Recipe for Improvisers, is so Levitt-influenced that I would have sworn I was listening to an out-take from one of his recordings. This is not to denigrate Halley or his musicians, but rather to compliment them. Even if the Levitt influence is accidental it is there if at a second-hand remove, though so too is a bit of mid-‘60s Sonny Rollins (particularly in Halley’s powerful and highly inventive solo work). He also takes a cue from Mingus in his construction of pieces with alternating tempo sections, which sound at first simply as extensions of the main theme but are in fact building blocks that move the music into different themes or developments of such.

Moreover, the second piece on this set, Urban Crunch, almost sounds at first hearing as if it were an extension of the opening piece, not because it is so similar but because it strikes the ear as a development of Recipe for Improvisers. Here, however, both the initial tempo and the succeeding sections are at a much quicker pace—one might almost say, an Allegro movement to the opening’s Andante con moto. Here, the Levitt influence sounds less strong, but the influence of Mingus a bit more forceful. One also begins to notice one of the more enticing qualities of this band, its ability to work together in terms of tempo and accent. What I mean by this is that, as the soloists improvise, they shift the meter as they work around the changes, and the bass and drums move with them as if they were all one mind, going in the same musical direction at once. Is this solely the result of improvising or, perhaps, the result of having worked together as a unit to the point where they can read each others’ minds in terms of rhythmic placement? Whichever the answer is, the end reuslt is stunning. Golia’s baritone playing has a gutsy edge to it that I like very much—more of a Sahib Shihab or Pepper Adams influence than Gerry Mulligan—while his bass clarinet solos have a touch of Eric Dolphy about them, but not so much as to seem imitative.

With the third piece, Around the Fringes, we reach the first of three works on this disc that were “composed” via collective input. I got the distinct feeling that this piece, at least, took its cue from the opening rhythmic cell payed by Vlatkovich on trombone, to which the others add their joyful if somewhat quirky counterpoint. Here, the rhythm section seems to be working its own “thing” behind Halley’s tenor solo and not necessarily following his rhythmic patterns; Vlatkovich interjects detached staccato notes into the mix, at which time Halley starts to folow his lead, but a bit too late as the composition comes to a sudden halt at about the two-minute mark. Green Needles has a bit of soul-jazz feel to it, yet the pulse sounds irregular, as if the band were trying to deceive the listener with what sounds like a comfortable pulse when in fact it is not. Certainly, the rhythm section’s tempo shifts and occasional displacements keep things moving while pulling the listener a bit off here and here. Vlatkovich contributes a brilliant trombone solo played mostly in staccato notes, and within this solo are more rhythmic shifts in the form of dotted quarters and repeated eighths. By the time Halley comes in with his solo, the music has become so much a rhythmic jumble that it almost sounds like something that Michael Mantler or Arthur Blythe might have done. The gradually increading tempo brings things to a climax, following which is a moment of silence before the quirky original theme returns for the rideout. This is one strange piece!

Du Fu’s Stew, with its opening arco bass drone over which we hear cymbal washes and long-held notes by the sax and trombone, has a real Mingus feel to it. I find it heartening to hear so many jazz bands nowadays following Mingus’ lead in the way he constructed tunes and “led” his soloists through them. The almost excruciatingly slow pace continues as the theme playing ceases; more cymbal washes lead into Golia on bass clarinet while the others moan softly in the background, upon which he fades away to allow the leader some quadruple-time playing on tenor before coming back to put his two cents’ worth in here and there. There is a certain Oriental feel to this piece in the way the bassist and horns slide up and down chromatically in such a way as to almost create the feel of quarter-tones.

Long Blue Road, another collective piece, starts out medium tempo with pizzicato bass before becoming an uptempo jam. Here ther eis no ambiguity to the tempo—it’s a straight four all the way. Perhaps a tribute to Lew Tabackin and Toshiko Akiyoshi’s Long Yellow Road? It certainly has the sound of a Toshiko and Lew piece to my ears despite the use of the bass clarinet, an instrument one seldom heard in Toshiko’s bands. It’s nice to hear a fairly straightahead swinger amidst so much offbeat material. Rising From the Plains opens with tom-toms and an octave-leap motif reminiscent of Les Brown’s Leap Frog, but quickly morphs into something more complex and, I might say, a bit sinister in feel. Drummer Halley keeps up the tom-toms under Golia’s baritone solo, but now shifts the accents within the bars to diffuse the strong 4/4 feel. Golia becomes quite excited here, doubling the tempo, before the trombone enters, a bit calmer and more reasonable in demeanor. When Halley enters it is in double time, but now the mood has lightened and his solo almost sounds happy by comparison with what preceded it. Carson Halley follows with a rare drum solo (pretty much staying on the tom-toms), after which we get the ride-out.

The somewhat sinister mood continues in the third and last collective piece, The Way Through, and this is undoubtedly the most abstract piece on the album. Little scattered remnants, half-melodies and snippets of such, come and go as the band deftly wends its way through this slow-moving yet difficult abstract maze. What a tribute to the instinctive skills of these musicians that they are able to “put something together” out of this paleozoic “soup,” eventually morphing into a slow but equally ominous-sounding steady 4 for the last chorus. Reciprocity has, perhaps, the strangest rhyth of all the pieces on this set; it sounds like a 4 but the beat shifts are such that one never comes out right if one counts that time, despite the fact that the rhythm section plays the rhythm fairly strongly. Once we get into the solos, started by Golia on bass clarinet, the tempo (such as it is) is doubled, at least until he lets out a semi-strangulated scream in the upper register, at which point Vlatkovich enters with a trombone solo that sounds like someone sinking into quicksand as the tempo turns into slush beneath him. Then we get an almost fully suspended tempo as the leader solos on tenor, followed by a pause and then the coda played in the initial pulse.

We end our musical journey with The Nuthatches which, like the opening piece, has a sort of Rod Levitt feel to it. A rhythmic figure played on bass clarinet over the snare drum in a different rhythm set the tone for a “smeared” melodic figure played over both. This becomes the dominant feel for the piece even after the trombone re-enters, now playing a crisp, staccato improvisation over the snares and bass. Golia’s bass clarinet solo here is all “outside” playing, almost screaming in pain, as both he and the rhythm section double the tempo. Another drum solo by Chris Halley follows, turning just a bit into Gene Krupa before the leader enters on tenor, also playing outside solo lines.

The Outlier is a wild and fascinating album that will both challenge and impress you. I highly recommend it!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Jeff Denson Runs Rings Around “Concentric Circles”

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CONCENTRIC CIRCLES / DENSON: City Life on Trains; Anticipation; A Thought That Lingers; Wishing Well; Look Before You Leap; Time Waits For No One; 21st Century Blues; Once the Door Opens; Circle. ELLINGTON-MILLS: I Got it Bad (And That Ain’t Good) / Jeff Denson Quartet: Denson, bs/voc; Paul Hanson, bassoon; Dan Zemelman, pn; Alan Hall, dm. / Ridgeway Records (no number)

After hearing so much dense (but interesting) jazz of late, it was a pleasure to listen to bassist-vocalist Jeff Denson’s new release. It’s not that the compositions here are not interesting—they are—but that their somewhat simpler construction and more regular meter allows the musicians of the group to play with greater looseness and, as a result, greater joy. By and large this is modal jazz set to freely swinging rhythms, with pianist Zemelman giving the music a bit of a Vince Guaraldi feel.

Much of the music’s buoyant quality comes, ironically enough, from the bassoon playing of Paul Hanson, whose work on this set is fascinating. Hanson improvises like a saxist, which isn’t too terribly surprising; what is surprising is the lovely tone he coaxes out of his instrument, rich and full, far from the bullfrog croaks of many a classical bassoonist. Maybe they should try swinging more often!

There are just enough irregularities in the tune construction on this set—note, for instance, the coruscating and slightly asymmetrical theme of Anticipation—that keeps the listener attentive. There are also slight irregularities in the Latin-tinged A Thought That Lingers, which Hanson has a great deal of fun with, tooting his bassoon through eighth-note passages that limn the melody while exploring the range of his instrument. Zemelman, an excellent pianist, takes over soft comping following this solo to support the leader’s arco solo, fairly high up in his range. The leader’s surprisingly high-voiced, vibratoless vocal on Wishing Well presents a new jazz ballad for others to use as they wish; once again, Hanson plays a stellar solo, but here so, too, does Denson on bass.

At the album’s midpoint, Look Before You Leap is a superb and more complex piece, utilizing a 6/8 motor rhythm played by Zemelman as a foil to the opening 4. Indeed, even when you know that the music is in 4, as in Zemelman’s excellent solo, the bass and drums are playing almost constant backbeats which throw you off track a bit, and the rhythm becomes even a bit more complex behind Hanson’s surprisingly bluesy solo. Eventually Zemelman takes to playing his 6/8 behind Hanson’s 4, then the beat returns to normal for a quick finish.

Time Waits for No One is another ballad, this one instrumental, which combines a bit of Orientalism and a Latin-type beat. Here, although Hanson is very good, it is the leader’s bowed solo is the centerpiece, followed by a lovely passage in which the piano plays single notes against the bassoon, bass and drums. 21st Century Blues, on the other hand, is a quasi-ragtime piece played over subtly changing chords and chord positions. The bassist keeps a steady 4, but the drummer does not, spreading his impish humor behind a swinging Zemelman solo with bassoon obbligato. When Denson comes in for his plucked solo the drummer behaves himself and stays with the beat, and stays there for Hanson as well. A fun piece!

With Once the Door Opens, we are in an entirely different world from the rest of the album. This is a slow, mysterious, open piece which opens with Hanson’s bassoon over cymbals before Denson’s bass comes in to pick up the tempo but keeps the strange mood, which continues through his scat vocal, in the midst of which we suddenly move into a straight 4 and then back out of it again. Tempo, and indeed pulse, are suspended for the opening of the piano solo, which then (curiously) picks up a bit in beat as the recording suddenly sounds like Chick Corea’s old Return to Forever band. This, however, also dissipates as the bassoon re-enters, as does Denson on bass and vocal to move things towards the finish…but not before the tempo and the tension increases, making the finale of this piece entirely different from its beginning.

Circle is a more traditional (albeit modal) swinger, and the band really cooks here. Denson, in particular, is really inventive in his solo, almost stealing the show. As a finale, we turn to the world of Duke Ellington and I Got it Bad, one of Ivie Anderson’s (and Johnny Hodges’) star vehicles with the band. Not too surprisingly, Denson re-works the piece, making it an a cappella bowed solo playing very high up in the bass’s range, with occasional plucked notes and chords as well as blues smears.

Concentric Circles is part fun and part challenge, a fine album by any standard.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Fischer-Dieskau Performs Lively Hindemith

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HINDEMITH: Der Dämon; Kammermusik Nos. 1 & 2; Hérodiade / Roman Henschel, pianist; Gisela Zoch-Westphal, narrator (Hérodiade only); Ensemble VARIANTI; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, conductor / Hänssler Classic HC16014 (live: 1995)

The late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was more than just an outstanding lieder singer and an occasionally great operatic artist; he was also a phenomenally gifted conductor, certainly the best “singer-conductor” I’ve ever heard. His performances were characterized by a strict attention to the score, clarity of texture, liveliness of tempi and (of course) a singing quality that permeated everything he led. Yet unlike Placido Domingo, a mediocre-to-poor conductor who never seems to turn down an opportunity to lead an orchestra (particularly in opera performances), Fischer-Dieskau was remarkably stingy in his podium excursions. He made but three commercial recordings as a conductor: the Brahms Symphony No. 4, Schubert Symphonies Nos. 5 and 8, and Berlioz’ Harold in Italy with Josef Suk as the viola soloist. All three were spectacular, among the best performances of those works ever recorded, and they received glowing reviews, and yet he gave up conducting by 1976. After his retirement as a singer, however, he did conduct orchestral accompaniments to his wife, soprano Julia Varady, one album each of Verdi and Strauss arias. There are reports of an album he made of rarely-heard orchestral works by Hugo Wolf for EMI, which I’ve never heard or seen, and he is said to have performed Schubert’s Lazarus as well as Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, neither of which made it to CD.

This two-CD set from Hänssler Classic adds to his skimpy conducting discography. Taken from a 1995 concert with Ensemble VARIANTI, this was probably (my copy of the recording did not come with liner notes) a 100th birthday tribute to composer Paul Hindemith, who had died in 1963. Fischer-Dieskau had already recorded, as a baritone, a pace-setting performance of Hindemith’s great opera Mathis der Maler, and here he gives us lively and meticulously detailed readings of some of the composer’s most attractive music. There are two ballet scores here, the early (1923) Der Dämon and the 1944 Hérodiade which he composed for Martha Graham. The latter needs some explanation, since the narration used here (and nowadays in most recordings of the music) was not intended by Hindemith or Graham to be part of the performance. Checking online, it apparently came into being when Robert Craft recorded the work for Columbia in 1958. He wanted Vera Zorina to read Stéphane Mallarmé’s prose poem against the backdrop of the music, which he felt was very effective. Hindemith was eventually convinced to give his permission, but relunctantly; it is not recorded whether or not the composer liked the finished result. But the recording sold very well and set a precedent which Fischer-Dieskau follows here, although presenting the narration in German rather than the original French.

From first note to last, these are performances that bristle with excitement. I listened to Der Dämon as conducted by Gerd Albrecht for comparison, and I didn’t hear the same kind of sharply-etched detail or enthusiasm in his performance that I heard in Fischer-Dieskau’s. I also listened to the Craft recording of Hérodiade, and found some interesting differences in his approach. For one, Craft places the piano accompaniment much more forward in balance than Fischer-Dieskau did, but this might just be the difference between a studio recording and a live performance. As usual for him, Craft conducts with a very lean orchestral sound and very pointed rhythms. Fischer-Dieskau conducts in a somewhat more lyrical fashion, not glossing over the rhythmic elements of the music but not making them the focus of his reading. I was not altogether pleased with Zoch-Westphal’s narrating, however; to me, she seemed to be a bit too loud and hammy in her presentation, but again, this might be because she was projecting into an auditorium in a live performance. She certainly narrates with passion and feeling!

Fischer-Dieskau also does a splendid job with the two Kammermusik suites, which he (oddly) performed in reverse sequence. Of course, the basic problem with this issue is that it is spread across two CDs because the full performance runs just 11 minutes over the capacity of a single disc, and Hänssler is not discounting the price for two CDs. To me, this is a problem. Perhaps they should have filled out the second CD with either the Brahms Fourth or the Harold in Italy; I, for one, would have been glad to have either one digitally restored and released. Even so, this is a valuable and fascinating album well worth getting as a memento of a great singer’s great conducting.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Giulini’s Venerable “Iphigénie en Tauride” a Gem

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GLUCK: Iphigénie en Tauride / Patricia Neway, soprano (Iphigénie); Pierre Mollet, baritone (Oreste); Leopold Simoneau, tenor (Pylade); Robert Massard, bass (Thoas); Micheline Rolle, soprano (Diana); Arlette Roche, Ann-Marie Carpenter, sopranos (Priestesses); Georges Abdoun, baritone (Un scythe); Robert Lamande, bass (Ministre de Thoas); Simone Codinas, mezzo-soprano (A Greek); Ensemble Vocal de Paris; Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire Paris; Carlo Maria Giulini, conductor / Profil PH16008

This venerable yet vibrant recording, made after performances at the Aix-en-Provence festival in 1952, has been around the block a bit. It first appeared on Vox LPs in 1953 (PL-7822), reissued by Vox a decade later (OPX-212) before showing up on EMI Electrola (1C 137 1731713). Its first CD incarnation was in 2007 on MDV Classics 800, a release that appears to have gotten absolutely no reviews in the press, and now it is presented to us by Profil. One may well ask why since the only “star names” are Canadian Leopold Simoneau, who had a brief but stellar career as the leading light French tenor of the 1950s, baritone (here singing bass) Robert Massard, and conductor Giulini. Soprano Patricia Neway, known more as a great stage actress who could sing than as a vocalist per se, did not have the most beautiful voice in the world but a dramatic, well-focused tone with a razor-like cut up top, superb diction and even better interpretive skills. In addition to creating Magda Sorel in the world premiere of Menotti’s The Consul, she also sang the Female Chorus in the American premiere of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia as well as in Hugo Weisgall’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, Berg’s Wozzeck and Schoenberg’s Erwartung in addition to such standard roles as Tosca and Santuzza.

Neway as Magda Sorel

Patricia Neway as Magda Sorel

All the singers here, well known or not (and I doubt if anyone not related to them has ever heard of Micheline Rolle, Arlette Roche, Georges Abdoun or Robert Lamande), give their absolute best in this performance, and in the end this is what lifts it to a truly exalted level despite the boxy 1952 sound. Driving the performance is the surprisingly vivid and exciting conducting of young Carlo Maria Giulini. Giulini distinguished himself in the recording studio with fine performances of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro, but here he was asked to do something even more dramatic and responded brilliantly without over-forcing the musical line. One online review that I read of Marc Minkowski’s studio recording of this opera, with Mirielle Delunsch in the title role, claimed that the period instruments used brought out the music better than non-period ones, but listening to this recording—and Riccardo Muti’s equally splendid version with Carol Vaness—I would respectfully disagree. On the contrary, the way many of these orchestras play nowadays with their whiny straight tone actually robs the music of vitality, despite the excellent conducting of such leaders as Minkowski and William Christie (whose DVD of this opera I particularly favor). I find that the greater richness of the modern instruments used here—with, I hasten to point out, reduced vibrato and orchestral size—give the music greater nobility without sacrificing clarity of sound in the least.

But perhaps I should qualify that statement somewhat, because it sounds to me as if Profil, in an effort to reduce the original tape hiss, rolled back the treble end just a bit too much, giving the orchestra and singers a less clear sound profile. I found that by boosting the frequencies from 2400 Hz on up by about 2 decibels worked wonders on opening up the sound and revealing the full clarity of both the voices (solo and choral) and instruments. Despite this, Giulini’s way with the score, the careful way he builds scenes and maintains dramatic tension without ever rushing the beat too much or sacrificing a proper legato, is simply marvelous to hear. Compared to many modern performances, the very opening of the opera’s orchestral prelude may sound a bit slow, but Giulini gradually increases both the tempo and the forward pressure until, as Iphigénie enters, we are swept away in the musical storm. I have long marveled at the audacious chromatic changes that Gluck wrought in this orchestral-vocal prelude, and no matter how many times I hear them they still startle the ear. Here was a true master of drama in music, a man so far ahead of his time that it wasn’t really until the late 1850s that his late operas made any sense to audiences or critics. Both Wagner and Strauss adored this opera and made their own orchestral arrangements, but as great as they were neither one really improved on what Gluck himself wrote.

If nothing else, however, this recording should be used in classrooms around the world as Exhibit A that you do NOT need to use straight-tone strings, choruses or solo singers to make a performance “sound” like the 18th century. Giulini and company do a stellar job of it here, and in addition they have the one element missing from about 95% of such endeavors, and that is heart. I’m not talking about playing and singing loudly or quietly; that we can achieve nowadays; I mean that the singers and instrumentalists sound as if they really care about the music and aren’t just performing it for a paycheck. Of modern performances, only the Minkowski studio recording or the Christie DVD come close, and to my mind Christie both rush the music in places where it doesn’t need to be in order to create “excitement,” which is not quite the same thing as “heart.” This is particularly important of the tenor and baritone, whose extended scenes and duets make up the bulk of this work. If they can’t bring out the fear and sadness the characters are feeling when they sing, there isn’t much point in their performing it in the first place, and this Simoneau and Mollet do very well (particularly the latter, although this is the most involved I’ve ever heard Simoneau sing).

Because of the somewhat dry and boxy mono sound, I can’t recommend this as a first choice—that honor goes to the Muti recording—but it’s so damn good that if you really love Gluck, you have to make room on your shelf for it. It’s a bit ironic that one can find reviews online for 1950s mono recordings of mundane Puccini operas featuring Tebaldi, Callas or Milanov, but not one period review for this stupendous recording. I have a feeling that it never really sold very well, hence the lack of enthusiasm when it was first issued on CD by MDV Classics. Since I reviewed it as a download I don’t know if it comes with a libretto, but the back cover inset doesn’t mention one…but then again, the back cover insert doesn’t tell you who sings the roles of Diana, a Greek, the Minister or the Priestesses, all of which I found online at an opera discography website, so I don’t think it’s a very reliable source of information. Nevertheless, I for one found this an indispensable acquisition, not least for Neway’s consistently involved, distraught Iphigénie and the taut, edgy conducting of young Giulini.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Coltrane’s 60 Giant Steps Towards a New Jazz Style

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A GIANT STEP IN JAZZ: JOHN COLTRANE / MALNECK-SIGNORELLI: Stairway to the Stars. JACKSON: The Late Late Blues; Bags and Trane; Blues Legacy. RUBY: Three Little Words. DENNIS: The Night We Called it a Day. GILLESPIE: Be-Bop. EDISON: Centerpiece / John Coltrane, t-sax; Milt Jackson, vibes; Hank Jones, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Connie Kay, drums. COLTRANE: Giant Steps (2 tks); Spiral; Countdown; Syeeda’s Song Flute; Mr. P.C.; Cousin Mary / Coltrane, t-sax; Tommy Flanagan, piano; Chambers, bass; Art Taylor, drums. COLTRANE: Naima; Like Sonny; Countdown; Syeeda’s Song; Cousin Mary / as above, but Cedar Walton, piano & Lex Humphries, drums. VALENTINE-TREADWELL: I’ll Wait and Pray (2 tks). COLTRANE: Little Old Lady; Like Sonny; Harmonique; Naima; Some Other Blues; Fifth House; Village Blues. ARLEN: My Shining Hour / Coltrane, t-sax; Wynton Kelly, piano; Chambers, bs; Jimmy Cobb, drums. CHERRY: Cherry-Co. COLEMAN: The Blessing: Focus on Sanity. MONK-BEST: Bemsha Swing / Coltrane, t-sax; Don Cherry, cornet; Charlie Haden, bs; Ed Blackwell, drums. COLTRANE: Village Blues; Central Park West; Mr. Syms; Untitled Original (Exotica); Mr. Knight; Mr. Day; Blues to You (2 tks); Blues to Bechet; Satellite; 26-2; Liberia; Equinox. RODGERS-HAMMERSTEIN: My Favorite Things. GERSHWIN-HEYWARD: Summertime. GREEN-HEYMAN-SOUR: Body and Soul (2 tks). JONES: Blues to Elvin. PORTER: Every Time We Say Goodbye. GERSHWIN-GERSHWIN: But Not for Me / Coltrane, t-sax/s-sax; McCoy Tyner, piano; Steve Davis, bass; Elvin Jones, drums. COLTRANE: Ole; Dahomey Dance. TYNER: Aisha. FRAZIER: To Her Ladyship / John Coltrane, t-sax/s-sax; Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; Eric Dolphy, flute/a-sax; Art Davis, bass; Tyner, piano; Elvin Jones, drums (add Reggie Workman, bass on “Ole”) / Rhino Atlantic 603497987832, available as download only (iTunes, Amazon, Microsoft Store)

It is generally conceded that saxophonist John Coltrane is the third, and last, great legend in jazz, the first two being Bix Beiderbecke and Charlie Parker. Unlike Beiderbecke, who was generally unknown to the general public during his lifetime, or Parker, who was known but misunderstood until the last seven years of his life, Coltrane was blessed to have been recognized as a jazz giant from the mid-1950s, when he first started playing with Miles Davis, until his death in 1967, although his last musical directions baffled many in the jazz community. Moreover, his position during those dozen or so years was not just a high one but towering, and he was not appreciated only by jazz lovers but also by young people who otherwise only listened to rock music due to his powerful sound and potent emotional feeling.

As an improviser, Coltrane generally worked around the advanced changes that came into being during the bebop era, but he kept wanting to play—as he put it to Davis and other colleagues—“all the notes.” To this end, he spent some time with Thelonious Monk and studied George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept (he even played on one of Russell’s record projects, the big band he assembled for his New York, N.Y. album), but eventually he was drawn to the circular chromatic exercise book produced in the 1940s by conductor and pedagogue Nicholas Slonimsky. These exercises, meant as nothing more than that, now suddenly became a major part of Coltrane’s musical vocabulary, and he incorporated so many of them and played them so fast and furiously that they became known to the public under the generic title “sheets of sound” (a technique that also influenced rock music producer Phil Spector, who adapted it to a solid block of horns that he called the “wall of sound”). The recording that catapulted Coltrane and his sheets of sound to superstardom was, of course, his almost 14-minute marathon performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s innocuous little tune from The Sound of Music, “My Favorite Things.” By the mid-’60, when FM radio stations became more popular with young people and extra-long recordings were played regularly on that medium, the full version of My Favorite Things almost became a hypnotic musical mantra for many of the Hippie generation, but there was also an abbreviated 45-rpm single of it that was played on regular AM radio. This was probably the first unadulterated jazz improvisation to become a major hit record since Coleman Hawkins’ Body and Soul back in 1939.

This imposing collection, spanning no less than 60 tracks—most of them seven to nine minutes long, not counting the marathon pieces like My Favorite Things (13:47), Focus on Sanity (12:12), Summertime (11:31) and Ole (18:17)—covers the whole of Coltrane’s association with Atlantic Records between January 15, 1959 and May 25, 1961, the latter session being completed in between his first two recording dates for Impulse!, the Africa-Brass Sessions. As you can see from the personnel information, by the time he left Atlantic he had just about arrived at his normal working quartet of himself, pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Elvin Jones. This set was originally issued by Rhino Records, that outstanding indie label which made available to two generations of “beat” listeners some of the best jazz (early Ornette Coleman, early Mingus, Ken Nordine’s “word jazz” albums, etc.) and spoken word (lots of Jack Kerouac) albums from the late 1950s-early ‘60s before they were gobbled up by Warner Entertainment. Now this set is being “distributed” by Naxos of America, but since it is only available as downloads and not as hard discs, I’m not sure exactly how this distribution angle works for them. I’ve looked at the download platforms on iTunes, Amazon and the Microsoft Store, and at none of them have I seen the magic word “booklet,” so I have to assume there is none. Happily, there is a full Coltrane discography available online at the Jazz Discography Project here.

Of course, it’s really the music that counts, and since this massive collection is selling for roughly $34-$36 depending on where you go to get it, even if you burn it to CDs (as I did) you’re talking about six discs’ worth of Coltrane. This averages about $6 per disc plus the price (not much, of course) of blank CDs. Happily for me, I already had two of the albums included here in my collection, Giant Steps and Coltrane Jazz, so I could skip about 20 selections to put on disc.

Essentially, this collection shows just how quickly Coltrane was moving towards his mature style. In the 1959 selections, we hear a musician who, although his own man in terms of the substance of his improvisations, was still under the stylistic spell of Charlie Parker (when the music was playing through my computer speakers, before I came downstairs from my bedroom in the morning to see who it was, it sounded eerily like Bird to me) and a little of his contemporary Sonny Rollins, but by the time we reach the rather strange session with Ornette Coleman’s sidemen of the time, cornetist Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Ed Blackwell, we hear Trane moving towards a new form of expression that involved, in addition to his more convoluted, rapid playing, a greater relaxation of the basic pulse, often running across bar lines in a headlong rush to get it all out. When we reach the Ole/Dahomey Dance session, the familiar Coltrane of the Impulse! albums is all there, breaking out into newer and more exploratory regions. The massive, 18-minute long Ole, in fact, could easily have been a track from one of his later discs, except that it includes Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and Eric Dolphy on flute. I find it interesting that both Coltrane and Charles Mingus thought of Dolphy as their musical offspring, though they used him quite differently: Trane as composer-arranger of the Africa/Brass Sessions as well as a solo voice, Mingus exclusively as an extended soloist within his longer compositions (particularly Meditations) where Dolphy was allowed to go on as long as he wanted, as Coltrane did in the Impulse! years. In Ole, as was often the case in later Coltrane Quartet performances, pianist McCoy Tyner is given a great deal of latitude to contribute to the developing structure. I’ve always liked Tyner because, no matter how long his solos, he always seemed to have an idea where he was going and how to get there, even when he comped for two full choruses as he does here. Here, too, Coltrane uses (unusually) two bassists, Art Davis and Workman, and in one chorus one of them plays in a droning, Middle Eastern style against the other, suddenly lifting Ole from Spain and bringing it to its more exotic roots.

Trane’s stinginess in granting reviews with reporters and critics and his refusal to talk to his audiences between numbers or sets led many to assume he was arrogant, but in truth he was almost pathologically shy, thus for him keeping up that invisible wall of slight distance from his audiences gave him the courage to go out and perform. Those who knew him well knew he was a seeker of truth and love, and in fact A Love Supreme from 1965 may just be the most sheerly sensuous jazz album ever recorded. He kept trying to play “all the notes,” a quest that led him to explore Indian, Malaysian and other ethnic music, eventually running them all together in his mind and through his horn. Many in the avant-garde community looked up to him as a harbinger of such “outside” players as Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders, but to be honest Trane wasn’t trying to play outside the way they did; he was just Trane and didn’t try to influence anyone. In fact, if anything he was always somewhat apart from the mainstream, particularly via his straight, vibratoless tone which created an almost “tubular” sound, as if he were playing a shawm (a conical bore instrument, forerunner of the oboe). Eventually he reached the point where his music was incomprehensible to most listeners, even those fans who had followed him through every phase of his career; his late concerts with his wife Alice on piano were either poorly attended or had patrons walking out after 10-15 minutes of what sounded like incoherent rambling. Mingus, angry that he never played any of his compositions, complained that “Coltrane thinks he’s the greatest saxophone player in the world,” but once again it was a misunderstanding. For the most part, Trane didn’t respond well to tight compositional structures like those Mingus wrote; what he wanted was enough room to go back and forth over a tune until he was satisfied that he had wrung every last bit of expression out of it. Listen here, for instance, to Satellite which is just barely a “tune;” rather, it is a set of changes over which Coltrane creates a tune (of sorts) before working it over and over and over throughout its duration. Though only six minutes long, every second is crammed with Coltrane’s probing mind to the expense of the pianist and bassist, who are helpless to do anything but keep time. When Trane died suddenly at age 40, even his latter-day detractors were shocked and saddened, knowing that a jazz giant had passed from the scene.

Despite the somewhat rambling, unissued For Her Ladyship that ends this collection, this set goes a long way towards showing why there was so much love and admiration for Coltrane. By and large, his Atlantic years were his most consistent and varied in musical styles and approach, and I for one often return to those Atlantic albums in my collection because they are so musically satisfying. (At times, as in Blues to You, he sounds a little like Sonny Rollins—and why not?—whereas in But Not for Me, his first chorus sounds like a swing saxophonist before he gets rolling on a stream of sixteenths.) Often, in his Impulse! albums, it sounds as if Coltrane goes on a chorus or two longer than he should have, but here everything is in beautiful proportion; even his use of space is interesting. I highly recommend this set to anyone who does not have his Atlantic recordings, or who, like me, only has a couple of albums from them.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Rhorer’s “Abduction” Lively But Flawed

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MOZART: Die Entführung aus dem Serail / Norman Reinhardt, tenor (Belmonte); Mischa Shelomianski, bass (Osmin); David Portillo, tenor (Pedrillo); Jane Archibald, soprano (Konstanze); Rachele Gilmore, soprano (Blonde); Christoph Quest, speaker (Pasha Selim); Ensemble Aedes; Le Cercle de l’Harmonie; Jérémie Rhorer, conductor / Alpha 242 (live: Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, September 21, 2015)

So close to perfection, and yet so far from it. That is my final assessment of Jérémie Rhorer’s sparkling live performance of Mozart’s Entführung, issued here by Alpha on CD. Yes, he uses a corrupted, “straight-tone” orchestra, but he understands phrasing and dynamics and he makes it sing. He also has a very fine if slightly fluttery Konstanze in Jane Archibald, a wonderfully light but pliant Belmonte in Norman Reinhardt, and a first-rate Osmin (not an easy animal to find in captivity) in Mischa Shelomianski. His tempos are on the brisk side, occasionally pressed just a bit but of the kind I like in this opera. Everything is light and sparkling. So where’s the rub?

The problem is one Rachele Gilmore, a sexy-looking knockout who studied at both Indiana University and Boston, as Blonde. Apparently she learned nothing there on how to sing because she can scarcely control her vibrato which is all over the place, so much so that she can’t even sustain a steady tone longer than one beat. (I began to come up with catchphrases for her singing as the performance went on: “Longer than a beat, hear Gilmore bleat.”) It gets so bad that by the time she sings her duet with Osmin, you’re almost hoping that he dumps a wicker basket over her head just to shut her up.

Now, I know that Blonde is not the central soprano role in Abduction, but considering that there must be at least 300 soubrettes our there who could sing the role better than this, what were they thinking in hiring Gilmore? Was her agent that powerful? It’s a shame because she really does ruin this recording, which is otherwise a jewel from start to finish. In the fiedishly difficult “Martern aller arten,” Archibald proves that she is not only up to the challenges of the score itself, including a wonderful trill, but also that she can sing those alternate cadenzas that are not entirely necessary but add some fun to the proceedings. Reinhardt’s voice put me in mind of another tenor; for a while I couldn’t think of who, then it clicked in my head that he sounds a bit like thelate Anton Dermota. Shelomianski is able to plunge the depths that Osmin’s music demands while maintaining his mock-gruff persona throughout (although I felt that “O wie will ich triumphuren” was just a shade too manic).

After having listened to a good two dozen recordings of this opera, ranging from 1951 to the present, and being disappointed by most of them, I’ve come to the conclusion that Abduction is really one of Mozart’s hardest operas to cast well. Although the tempos are a bit on the measured side, the only one that really satisfies me from start to finish is the 1980 Glyndebourne performance, issued on Arthaus Musik DVD 102310, with Valerie Masterson as Konstanze, Lillian Watson as Blonde, Ryland Davies as Belmonte, James Hoback as Pedrillo and Willard White as Osmin, conducted by Gustav Kuhn. It’s also a wonderful and beautiful stage production, too, with none of the neurosis or garbage of modern-day “Regietheater.” None of the other versions I’ve heard satisfy me; either one of the main singers is defective or the conducting is too slow and stodgy, or the performance just doesn’t catch fire.

But within his element and what he was trying to do, I have to give Rohrer a lot of credit. He almost pulled this off. Had he or the Champs-Elysées management been more careful in casting the role of Blonde, it just might have been my favorite version, but as it stands I can only recommend it for the conductor’s conception and most, but not all, of the singing.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Bill Evans’ Lost Session Released at Last

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SOME OTHER TIME: THE LOST SESSION FROM THE BLACK FOREST

GILLESPIE-COOTS: You Go to My Head*+. EVANS: Very Early*+; Turn Out the Stars*+; Walkin’ Up*+. NEWLEY-BRICUSSE: What Kind of Fool Am I? (tk 1*, tk 2*+). DePAUL-RAYE-JOHNSTON: I’ll Remember April*. RODGERS-HART: My Funny Valentine*+. WRIGHT-FORREST: Baubles, Bangles and Beads (tk 1*, tk 2*+). BURKE-VAN HEUSEN: It Could Happen to You*. ELLINGTON: In a Sentimental Mood*+. MASCHWITZ-STRACHEY: These Foolish Things*. BERNSTEIN-COMDEN-GREEN: Some Other Time*+. A. & D. PREVIN: You’re Gonna Hear From Me (2 tks*+). PORTER: It’s All Right With Me. FREED-LANE: How About You?* + KAPER-WASHINGTON: On Green Dolphin Street*+. BRODZKY-KAHN: Wonder Why*+. RAMIREZ-DAVIS-SHERMAN: Lover Man / Bill Evans, piano; *Eddie Gomez, bass; +Jack DeJohnette, drums / Resonance Records 9019, available as 2-CD set (with extensive liner notes) for $24.98 from manufacturer here or as digital download from iTunes.

Bill Evans was a lucky man. Despite a heroin habit that drained his finances and his health for a quarter-century, he was still able to play at or near peak efficiency throughout his storied career, and after several years in which he experimented (quit successfully) with a variety of modern jazz styles, he discovered that audiences swooned over his soft-grained, relaxed, rich-toned piano sound in a trio setting. It was love at first hearing, via the Sunday at the Village Vanguard sessions, and it stayed that way until his premature death in 1980.

Yet along the way, a slightly harder jazz side of Evans sneaked out now and then, and this remarkable session, made in Germany on June 20, 1968, is one such example. Eddie Gomez was his regular bass partner by this time, but drummer Jack DeJohnette was sort of a new addition, along for the ride as part of a European tour that included the Montreux Jazz Festival (a live session from Montreux with DeJohnette was issued by Verve, his label at the time). Thus this set is remarkable as being the only studio recording he made with that drummer, as well as having been lost for nearly 50 years and being one of his most swinging and adventurous sessions.

According to the notes, the recordings were taped somewhat hastily in a one-day session between live performances at the recording studios of MPS Records, with the agreement that none of it would be released without authorization from Evans and/or his agent, Helen Keane, because he was under contract to Verve at the time. Somehow or other, both parties forgot about it (or maybe Evans just didn’t care) and the tapes were filed away in a vault at the SABA electronics factory in Germany’s Black Forest. A chance meeting between Zev Feldman, the A&R man for Resonance Records, and one of the sons of MPS founder Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, led to his being told about the album and being able to hear one track (he doesn’t tell us which one), which spurred Feldman to convince Resonance president George Klabin to allow him to pursue the full tapes for an official issue.

Well, here it is, despite a road through red tape that makes the Black Forest look benevolent. Coming to an agreement with Brunner-Schwer’s family was the easy part; they then had to clear the rights with Evan Evans, Bill’s son, who manages his estate, Universal Music Group who owns the rights to all of Evans’ Verve-days recordings, and of course the sidemen who are both still alive. Finally, all hurdles had been cleared and the recording is issued at last.

As Marc Myers puts it in the notes, this album came near the beginning of what he calls Evans’ “percussive poet” years, featuring “a more robust, confident piano approach with pronounced chord and finger strikes and an increasingly agitated, almost rushed feel.” I refer to it as a return to his bebop/Tristano roots, which he occasionally dabbled with even during his soft-grained, romantic years. Myers refers to them as “swinging romantic” years, but for me they were only intermittently swinging and largely romantic—or, at least, only the softer material was issued. Read my review of Evans’ Loose Blues session from 1962 elsewhere in this blog, and you’ll see what I mean.

Whatever the case, it’s wonderful to hear Evans clearly enjoying himself and playing at or near peak form in this release. Myers correctly describes DeJohnette’s drumming style on this session as a “swarm of gentle, abstract snare figures and pesky cymbal rustlings” which created “a dramatic and provocative backdrop” without interrupting Evans’ flow of ideas. In some selections he dispenses with the drums entirely…no one is quite sure why. But anyone who is familiar with the Evans-Gomez relationship will recognize that the bassist, though less exploratory harmonically than Scott LaFaro, had the advantage of constantly nudging Evans towards a more swinging, less overtly introspective approach to his playing. In other words, Evans swings harder here than he had for quite some time on studio recordings.

As was usual for Evans during the bulk of his trio career, the program consists of older standards with a few originals (Very Early, Turn Out the Stars, Walkin’ Up) tossed in for flavoring. What impresses one from the outset, however, is the slightly more aggressive and swinging style in which he plays—not terribly dissimilar from that one heard on the Loose Blues session, i.e., extended bebop lines in the right hand with occasional chord feeds in the left, leaning occasionally towards extensions of the chord in his improvisations without unduly disturbing the overall tonal structure. (To a certain extent, this is what Mozart did as well, writing and playing nice tunes in a tonal framework but leaning towards spiky harmonies or dissonance occasionally to flavor the music.) Only two pieces irked me, through no real fault of Evans’: What Kind of Fool Am I? because it’s a song I’ve always detested, although in his two takes of it the pianist does his level best to raise the musical level above the slag-heap of pop effluvium, and On Green Dolphin Street because it is, in my view, the absolute worst “jazz standard” ever written. Nothing about it is good or interesting, not the melody, not the chord changes, nothing. It’s just an ugly little song with nothing to recommend it, and not even a great musician like Evans could make me like it any better.

Otherwise, this is prime Evans in the period just before he made the trio with Gomez and drummer Marty Morell his standard working group. The quality of the playing is of a very high order, certainly as good if not better than any of his contemporary performances, including the live set from Montreux. Hearing how he transforms What Kind of Fool is as good an indication as any of how his musical mind worked, even when he was “sort of” coasting (well, for Bill Evans he was coasting…for most other pianists, this would be peak work). Both here and in his own Very Early, he vacillates between a 3/4 and a 4/4 feel, generally leading from the first tempo to the second but also going back and forth a bit. As was so often the case, too, he so transforms some of these songs that even in the theme statements startle us by his cleverness and invention—listen, particularly, to the oft-familiar You Go To My Head and I’ll Remember April, the latter taken at a brisker tempo than most jazz musicians are prone to do. In Duke Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood he creates “walking chords,” descending chromatics in the left hand to accompany his right-hand playing.

Gomez plays here what I would characterize as a “happy bass.” He skitters up and down the instrument, enjoying the interaction, playing improvisations that are largely rhythmic rather than harmonically daring. As time went on he would expand his role within the trio, but there is nothing to complain of here. The sensitive, Debussy-like Evans, with rich chords and almost floating sense of time, is heard in three numbers, My Funny Valentine, Some Other Time and Lover Man. Myers, in his notes, seems surprised that in several pieces DeJohnette does not play. I admit I was rather shocked, too, but one must remember that this was a one-day marathon session, and Evans might not have chosen all the tracks for release. Certainly he would have omitted the strange, unfinished solo performance of It’s All Right With Me, on which he has a couple of false starts, gets going pretty well, but then stops in the middle of nowhere. As long as they were in the studio for a few hours, why not re-make it? But he didn’t. Curiouser and curiouser.

DeJohnette’s playing is absolutely perfect for this style, but—if I may be permitted a caveat—a bit under-recorded. Perhaps this was one reason the session was forgotten by Evans and his manager, Helen Keane? You never know. It’s also impossible to tell, at this remove, whether or not the distancing of the drums from the microphone was accidental or artistic choice. Certainly, I can’t recall any drummer recorded in the studio quite so far back as DeJohnette is here, not even on any other Bill Evans album. That being said, the only reason I can think of for this album’s long gestation period before release was the insistence of Verve Records to keep Evans identified in the public mind only with that label. As I’ve said many times, major labels suck.

The recorded sound is typical of its time, warm and rich, favoring the sound of the Steinway he played on and the bassist if not necessarily the drummer’s cymbals. I, for one, am very happy to finally have this excellent and unusual recording in circulation

May I recommend another lost session, albeit not one that was never issued, to Resonance Records: the 1963 Serenade to Sweden album by pianist Duke Ellington playing with three French horns and a rhythm section (arranged by Billy Strayhorn) with the legendary Swedish jazz singer Alice Babs? Babs went to her grave hoping against hope that this session would be issued on CD, but it was never reissued at all after its 1963 incarnation on the Swedish (only) Reprise label. I’m sure someone has the tapes somewhere, but so far as I know it only exists in high-priced but worn copies of the original LP that occasionally surface on eBay. Yet the music is extraordinary, completely improvised in the recording studio by Babs and Ellington, then scored by Strayhorn and recorded on the fly. It is the only major studio album by Ellington that was never available after its initial release, and it deserves to be.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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